3.01.2011

Fighting Spirit (1992)

PLOT: After his sister is injured during an attempted gang rape, a young kickboxer can’t afford the medical bills so is forced into underground street fights by a sleazy crime boss. As the danger reaches a fever pitch, the only prescription is his best friend, David.

Director: John Lloyd
Writer: Rod Davis
Cast: Loren Avedon, Sean P. Donahue, Greg Douglass, Ned Hourani, Jerry Beyer, Michelle Locke, Mike Monty, Nick Nicholson

PLOT THICKENER:
You might be saying “hey Karl Brezdin, why the fuck are you calling this post Fighting Spirit when the cover art says King of the Kickboxers 2 and oh by the way, I got here by searching for Fighting Spirit anime torrents so where’s episode 7 ‘The Destructive Force of 1 cm?’” Well, hypothetical run-on question, allow me to explain.

Between 1986 and 1990, the original No Retreat, No Surrender and its two proper sequels were released. In Europe and other regions of the world, these films formed the Karate Tiger franchise (1-3.) Around 1991, King of the Kickboxers was released but was billed as Karate Tiger 4 in Europe and some other regions of the world. Then in 1992, American Shaolin was released as American Shaolin in America, but Karate Tiger 5 in Europe and elsewhere, but also as American Shaolin: King of the Kickboxers II on VHS by Academy Home Entertainment. That same year, Fighting Spirit was released under its original title in most places but eventually became King of the Kickboxers 2 when it was released on DVD in the United States. Pretty straightforward.


Fighting Spirit is the story of Billy (Donahue), a nice guy who made bad career choices and finds himself trying to make ends meet as an amateur kickboxer. While training with his coach (Nick Nicholson in a brief but hilarious cameo) he forgets to pick up his sister, Judith (Locke), following her shift at a local bar. When he finally arrives, she’s unconscious and about to be raped by a group of thugs led by Tony (Douglass), a gun dealer with an opinion of women equally as terrible as his terrible haircut. After Billy sends the thugs scurrying, a stranger appears out of nowhere and offers them a ride to the hospital. Unbeknownst to Billy, the stranger is Tony’s older brother, Russell (Hourani.) He watched the events unfold and has decided that Billy is worthy of a small investment.

After Judith’s insanely funky trip to the hospital -- director John Lloyd pairs the rush to the operating room with an orchestral disco beat -- Billy finds out that she needs an expensive surgery to save her eyesight, but he doesn’t have the funds to cover the procedure. Instead of accepting an offer of help from David (Avedon), his kickboxing friend and businessman, Billy takes money from the weird dude he just met an hour ago.


Unfortunately, there are strings attached. Billy quickly finds himself sucked into a filthy underworld where fighters compete in abandoned warehouses while rich assholes place bets and a funky wah-wah guitar track plays. Seeing unpolished potential, Russell pairs him with a fighting trainer named Murphy (Beyer) to hone his skills. While Murphy becomes something of a mentor to Billy, David is suspicious of the arrangement from the jump and encourages his friend to walk away and allow him to pay off the debt owed to Russell. Unfortunately, Billy’s pride won’t allow it.

Despite some initial success, Billy is still consumed by vengeance and begins to track down the people responsible for his sister’s attack. This lack of focus leads to a defeat and the relationship with Russell quickly turns sour. No slouch on the fighting front, David is forced to seek out Murphy for help to salvage what little remains in a desperate situation. The film’s villains do their part to make sure that no one goes unscathed. Russell is pure, hairy-chested sleaze and the glee with which Tony performs violence borders on childlike. No villain-filler here though, because both actors can fight reasonably well. (Though neither can act.)


The action in this film is bonkers and the stunt team deserves a lot of credit for killing themselves to make Avedon and Donahue look great. Since their respective filmographies are so limited, I can’t say much about action directors Tao Chang and Ping-Po Chin, but almost every scene is painted with generous helpings of blood, sweat, and dust. Most of the decisive blows are given tight, slow-motion close-ups and props are used frequently and liberally.

Among several high-quality fight sequences, the standout scene for me was a pool hall brawl. Billy and David roll into the local billiards spot looking for one of the dickheads responsible for Judith’s injuries, and all hell breaks loose. The performers lay absolute waste to the set by smashing windows, liquor bottles, shelves, and every breakaway piece of furniture in sight. Avedon also incorporates some comedic touches by alternating between running his hands through his hair, standing idly with his hands in his pockets, and using props like pool cues, racks, and balls to ward off enemies. Is there an out-of-place disco beat blaring over this? Yes, there is a disco beat.

To say nothing of the awful dubbing, the terrible soundtrack very nearly derails the entire film. The music and onscreen action frequently form wild mismatches in tone, from the dramatic disco-hospital combo to the energizing disco-fight scenes and the requisite disco-training montage scene. I doubt composer Larry Strong wrote and performed these songs specifically for this film; it seems more likely that he got an arbitrary credit when John Lloyd mined a box of studio music marked “BEST IF USED BY 1982.”


The film’s gritty feel is further underscored by some visceral tones and the brutality of some of the kills. Some people get thrown from rooftops, one gets tortured in a dingy basement, others get bloody strangulation, and Avedon scores an all too-rare Martial-Artist Vomit Scene when identifying a body at the morgue. There’s even a scene where a character has each arm tied to the rear bumpers of two different cars and is dragged at high-speed before splatting face-first into a stationary car. Sleazy kills, rape as a plot point, and low production values? Cirio-sense tingling...

While no filming location is listed on the film’s IMDb page, it’s safe to assume that based on the heinous music and risky stunts that this was filmed in the Philippines. The other critical indicators include cameos from Filipino action veterans Nick Nicholson, and Mike Monty as an obnoxious drunk. While Fighting Spirit was the last of four films directed by John Lloyd, his directorial style is timeless: keep the plot loose, the violence frequent, and everything in between as unintentionally hilarious as possible.


While most of the film’s accidental comedy comes from poor dubbing and the odd music selections, Michelle Locke’s performance as the vision-impaired Judith is gut-busting. Is it ever permissible to laugh at blind people in films? Usually no, because a good script and a well-trained actor won’t give you reasons to do so. Shintaro Katsu of Zaitoichi fame or Morgan Freeman in Unleashed weren’t flailing their arms in pools or tripping over dead bodies. These are mishaps that deserve a hearty mocking even if the character can see. So it’s OK to cackle at a first-time actress trying to pretend to be blind. If you laugh at a blind person crossing a street with the assistance of a seeing-eye dog, you’re a fucking degenerate.

VERDICT:
If enough people stumble across it, Fighting Spirit has the potential to become something of a cult classic in martial-arts film circles. It must be said that for every element the film gets right -- the fight scenes and sleazy villains among them -- there are three or four other things that go dreadfully wrong (the music, the script, dubbing, set lighting, etc.) The result doesn’t make for a poor viewing experience though. On the contrary, the film’s underlying charm comes directly from its grit, grime, and random technical warts. There’s no shortage of crazy Filipino action movies out there, but for those who likes their sleaze-and-cheese with an extra helping of chopsocky, this one is worth every cent of your viewing dollar.

AVAILABILITY:
Amazon or EBay.

5.5 / 7

7 comments:

  1. Now I know why I had trouble finding this one-- imdb doesn't link it to Amazon because Amazon lists it as King of the Kickboxers 2, not Fighting Spirit. Based on your review, it sounds as good as I remember it, but we'll have to see. I can't wait to check it out again though.

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  2. Good luck with the hunt, DtVC. I'd keep your expectations in check since this is a bit of a hot cinematic mess, but if you can forgive the various botches in technique, I think you'll dig it. There's action up the proverbial wazoo, which is all you can really ask of a film like this.

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  3. Damn. Sounds like Good Times but as DTVC mentioned, there's some gonna be some hunting involved in order to watch it.

    Wondering how bad the dead body must have looked for Avedon to throw up. That's not quite a cliche nowadays in movies, I think because with the internet and real death websites and just movies in general, I think we're all sadly numb to that kind of thing today and don't buy those moments in film anymore. It felt like it was only yesterday that Steven Seagal was asking Jerry Orbach if he had breakfast before showing him the crime scene, it felt like it was only yesterday that some day player asked Don "The Dragon" Wilson if he had eaten before showing him what was left of a prostitute who made the mistake of taking Matthias Hues as a john. But it wasn't yesterday, it was 1991.

    Anyway, great review as always, Karl. The best ones always leave me wanting to find the goddamn movie so I can see for myself, and that's what your reviews do.

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  4. EFC, you're positively clairvoyant -- I'm covering Blackbelt later this month!

    Thanks for the praise, and I do hope my enthusiasm for this one came through. It's a lot tougher to fake it for the films of Jalal Merhi and David Heavener, for example... though even then you need to find things to riff on.

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  5. This looks like a cool and odd flick! Will try to track it down.

    Blackbelt is a fun Don The Dragon movie. Looking forward to your review. Got to buy that one!

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  6. I only watched this because of Ned Hourani, the best but underrated fighter/actor of the 90s. Do you have other Ned Hourani movies?

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    Replies
    1. Emily, he's been in a few, so you can find all of the Ned Hourani film coverage here: www.fistofblist.com/search/label/Ned%20Hourani

      For those who were looking to track this film down, it's on YouTube: http://youtu.be/7_rJ5LtKX6Y

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